Baseball is a team sport, but it also features individual pitcher-on-batter matchups. One of these dramatic encounters occurred Monday night at Great American Ball Park.
The Reds were leading the LA Angels 7-2 with one out in the top of the 8th. Reliever Wandy Peralta had given up a walk and single before recording the first out of the inning. A home run by the next batter would close the gap to two runs.
That next batter was Mike Trout.
Trout is widely recognized as not only the best player in the game, but one of the greatest of all time. Earlier in Monday’s game, he had obliterated a Luis Castillo changeup, drilling it 442 feet into the Cincinnati night. Trout is putting up another MVP-caliber season.
To face Mike Trout, Freddie Benavides summoned Michael Lorenzen from the Reds bullpen. Lorenzen is having a strong season of his own, with an xwOBA of .280 (league average is .318).
Beyond playing center field, the two players share little in their baseball histories. Trout was drafted by the Angels in 2009 out of high school with the 25th pick overall. The Reds had chosen Mike Leake 17 picks earlier. Lorenzen was taken in the 7th round by Tampa Bay in 2010 but decided to go to college. The Reds drafted him out of Fullerton in 2013 with the #38 pick.
Trout is from the East coast, Lorenzen from California. Lorenzen is making $1.95 million this year, with two more years of team control. Trout just started a $428 million contract that runs through 2030.
The two players had squared off in Anaheim in June. Lorenzen won that battle, retiring the Angels outfielder on a fly ball. But Trout had hit a four-seam fastball 388 feet, driving Nick Senzel against the outfield wall and buckling Lorenzen’s knees.
[Click on the images if you want to watch the videos.]
On Monday night, the two 27-year-olds faced off again.
The sequel lasted five pitches.
Count 0-0 – Pitch #1 – Cutter
Most relievers command two pitches. A limited portfolio is why they’re in the bullpen. Starting pitchers use three or four different pitches, which equip them to face the same batter several times in one game.
Michael Lorenzen is not a normal reliever. He uses six pitches.
- Cutter (30.2%)
- Four-seam fastball (17.5%)
- Sinker (18.4%)
- Changeup (19.7%)
- Curve (7.8%)
- Slider (6.4%)
Lorenzen’s varied arsenal makes it difficult on the hitter.
He started Trout off with a 92.1 mph cutter, his most-used pitch. Lorenzen’s has the fourth-highest cutter velocity in the major leagues.
Tucker Barnhart’s target is down. The pitch was designed to induce a swing while dropping out of the strike zone. But it’s outside, never looks like a strike, so Trout lays off.
Count 1-0 – Pitch 2 – Four-Seam Fastball
Lorenzen next comes with a four-seam fastball.
Let’s talk a minute about spin rates and fastballs. A pitch’s “spin rate” is how fast the ball is spinning in the air. For a fastball, the spin is backspin. The pitcher’s arm slot, grip, pressure on the ball and release affect the spin. High-tech cameras, which the Reds are using more this year, help pitchers work on improving spin.
More fastball backspin counteracts the force of gravity. The ball drops less on its way to the plate. This shows up in measurements as positive vertical movement. Batters swing under high-spin fastballs and are more likely to miss.
From 2018 to 2019, Michael Lorenzen’s fastball spin rate has increased from 2381 rpm to 2484 rpm. That’a a big jump and now good for the 94th percentile in MLB.
The spin rate for this pitch was 2513 rpm, with a 10.45 inch vertical movement. Lorenzen needed every inch, because the MVP was right on it.
Barnhart’s target is middle-out, but the pitch slides back across the middle of the plate. Fortunately — or by design because of the spin rate — for Lorenzen, the pitch stays up in the zone. Trout has the pitch timed (you can tell that because the ball went straight back) but he swings under the elevated pitch and fouls it off.
Count 1-1 – Pitch 3 – Four-Seam Fastball
Lorenzen follows up that strike with another four-seam fastball, at 97.1 mph.
Let’s look at velocity. Research shows pitch velocity is highly correlated with strikeouts. A 95-mph fastball reaches home plate in 400 milliseconds. The bat swing takes 150 milliseconds. Hitters have a quarter-second to see the ball and decide whether and where to swing. As pitch velocity increases, decision time shrinks. Higher pitch velocity leads to more swings-and-misses and weak contact.
Lorenzen’s average fastball velocity (97.1 mph) is in the top 15% of all major league pitchers.
Lorenzen pulls this pitch well off the plate. With Trout locked in on the previous fastball, Lorenzen may have been throwing this outside on purpose, possibly to induce a swing and miss from Trout. Or to set up the following two-pitch sequence.
Count 2-1 – Pitch 4 – Changeup
Lorenzen changes pace here with an 86.7 mph changeup.
Barnhart is hunched down in the zone. Trout reads it as a fastball or cutter and swings. But this is a beautiful pitch. It’s off-speed, middle of the plate and low, and it drops at the last minute. Lorenzen gets Trout to swing at a pitch well below the strike zone. He’s got the Angels outfielder set up for what comes next.
Count 2-2 – Pitch 5 – Four-Seam Fastball
With the count even, Lorenzen follows the changeup with a pitch that looks just like it, except it comes in eleven miles per hour faster. Lorenzen fires his best four-seam fastball. Right Down Broadway.
Lorenzen’s highest pitch velocity (97.9 mph) pairs with his highest spin rate (2613 rpm) to produce his best movement (11.29 inches of vertical break) to get Trout on this four-seamer. Trout had to be thinking, at least a little bit, about the previous off-speed pitch. Instead, he got top-shelf heat.
Unlike Pitch 2, the one that Trout was right on, he’s a little behind and underneath. He swings through it.
Lorenzen and Trout faced each other the next night. It was also the 8th inning and the Reds were ahead 7-4 with no one on base. The at bat lasted 8 pitches. Lorenzen threw a curve on the first pitch, but otherwise it was all changeups and four-seam fastballs. Lorenzen struck out Trout on the same combination as the night before. A fastball after a changeup, in this case, after three consecutive changeups.
[Video from Baseball Savant, data from FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, Brooks Baseball and Statcast]
Fun read – and fun to understand the details. A question: if the spin rate increases – in this case back spin – wouldn’t the pitch break less? What am I missing?
It helps to think of fastball movement a bit differently from other pitches. With a fastball, we’re concerned with “rise” more so than “break” like we would be with a slider or curveball. A breaking pitch is going to break downward, and a fastball obviously doesn’t do that. A high-spin fastball will have more “rise,” or vertical movement. Backspin counteracts gravity, which of course tries to pull the ball down. The more backspin, the longer the ball will stay in the air and resist gravity. But this doesn’t mean the ball is literally rising. Gravity makes that impossible from a normal arm angle, especially given that the pitcher is throwing downhill. “Rise” simply means that the ball falls less than it would with lower spin. Batters expect a certain amount of drop on a normal fastball, but if they get a high-spin fastball instead (particularly high in the zone), they’re more likely to swing under it. The movement measurements Steve refers to in the article don’t mean that the ball literally rose 11 inches. Rather, it means that the ball stayed 11 inches higher than a spinless ball the same velocity would have. Does that make sense?
Yes, that makes sense. ‘Movement’ in this case actually means ‘change from where it would have been expected’. And Trout clearly thought it would arrive in a lower spot. While ‘rising fastballs’ appear to rise, I have read Steve (and others) who has noted that these pitches do not actually rise (although we swore as kids that they rose, and I think we might have gotten our wiffle balls to actually rise as we dreamt of being the next Nolan Ryan). I think the fact that they can measure its variance from how a straight pitch would have arrived is fascinating. Great stuff. Thanks, Matt (and Steve).
This was great!
Thanks, I enjoyed writing it.
Isn’t this fastball “rise” what makes Verlander and Scherzer so good? Can Lorenzen improve ?
Yep, Verlander and Scherzer have two of the best rising fastballs in the game. I think there’s definitely room for Lorenzen to use the high fastball even more.